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Amazon’s labor-tracking wristband has a history

by Stephen Mihm

Bloomberg

Amazon recently received patents for an “ultrasonic bracelet” that tracks workers’ movements. Pitched as a labor-saving device, they monitor how efficiently workers fill orders as well as giving them positive “haptic feedback” — a little vibration — as they reach for the correct bins, reducing unnecessary motion.

If this sounds a bit like planning to turn humans into robots, you are not alone; the news prompted a minor hysteria. However frightening, though, it’s hardly new. In fact, several long-dead pioneers of “scientific management” anticipated this development, even if they might not entirely approve of Amazon’s approach.

Scientific management is often associated with the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who was born into a respectable Philadelphia family in 1856. Though he won admission to Harvard University, he became a lathe operator at Midvale Steel Works, a company known for producing high-end steel armaments, steam turbines, and other products that required utter precision.

William Sellers, the famed engineer who ran Midvale, was obsessed with the idea that his collection of workers and machines could function as a single organism bendable to his will on a daily basis. “He knew how to give an order and exact obedience,” recalled one associate after his death, “and only to those who showed the capacity to obey did he extend the authority to direct the management of his affairs, while over all he never failed to exercise a masterly control.”

Taylor was cut from the same cloth. As he moved up the ranks at Midvale, he spearheaded a series of experiments on the shop floor, trying to find cut the amount of time it took to do certain tasks.

In 1881, he instituted the first of several time-motion studies, breaking down complicated tasks like cutting gears. He scrutinized and timed each step of the process in the hopes of making things more efficient. He carried a stopwatch with him, recording how many seconds it took workers to complete each step.

“Men will not do an extraordinary day’s work for an ordinary day’s pay,” Taylor later observed. He consequently instituted “differential wages” for workers. If they failed to live up to his production quotas, they would get paid less than the average. But if they exceeded his quota, they would be rewarded with much higher pay.

In 1898, a consulting gig at Bethehem Steel cleared the way for his most famous efficiency study. The company hired unskilled workers to load ingots of pig iron onto railroad cars. When Taylor arrived, the average rate was 12.5 tons of iron per worker per day. Eager to increase efficiency, Taylor found a model worker named Henry Noll to shadow and evaluate, promising him a sixty-percent wage increase if he complied with Taylor’s directives.

Noll, whom Taylor dubbed Schmidt when he related this tale in his 1911 best-seller “Principles of Scientific Management,” proved an ideal subject. As Taylor studied Noll, stopwatch in hand, he identified slivers of time that he could trim from the regular routine. Soon, Noll was loading pig iron in precisely the way that Taylor expected, complete with regimented rest breaks. By the experiment’s end, Noll could load 48 tons of iron a day, a staggering increase in productivity.

Taylor then instituted the new and improved methods across Bethehem Steel. Many men couldn’t take the strain; others, though, managed, even if the new work regime exacted a grievous toll on their bodies. This experiment, which many of Taylor’s critics held up as evidence of his inhumanity, nonetheless became the inspiration for countless such attempts at shaving time — and money — from industrial production.

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth became the best known disciples of Taylor. The parents of twelve children whose family life became the basis of the novel “Cheaper by the Dozen,” this husband-and-wife efficiency team took Taylor’s ideas and ran with them, inventing the modern “time-motion” study that is at the heart of Amazon’s obsession with eliminating wasteful movement.

Like Taylor, the Gilbreths used the stopwatch. But working as they did in the 1910s, they began documenting workers’ movements on film. This permitted them to identify very specific wasteful movements that workers could abandon in the name of greater efficiency. Toward that end, they began choreographing the most mundane of tasks: How a clerical employee filed paper in a cabinet, for example, or how an assembly line worker packed a box of sap.

As they watched these films, they began eliminating unnecessary steps, particularly those that might cause fatigue (bending down to pick something off the floor, for example, and putting it instead within arm’s reach). They even developed a shorthand system for depicting general movements — “grasp” or “hold,” for example — based on modernist hieroglyphic symbols they dubbed “therbligs.” (That’s “Gilbreth” spelled backwards.)

Though they broke ranks with Taylor, arguing for the importance of motion (Taylor remained more obsessed with cutting time alone) these management gurus effectively remade much of the American workplace, redesigning workspaces to be more rational and ergonomic, and retraining workers in order to make them more efficient — and more productive to the companies that hired them. But workers trained to act like machines tended to suffer from a relatively predictable problem: They grew to dislike their jobs.

We don’t know how Amazon hopes to put this new invention to use, much less how they intend to identify the inefficiencies that the bracelet is supposed to target. But what is interesting is how Amazon is taking some very old ideas and giving them a distinctly 21st century spin. Rather than having a manager — or worse, management consultant! — hovering over the workers’ shoulders, telling them what to do, it’s a bracelet that actually responds in real time to bodily movements, nudging errant employees in the right direction.

But Amazon’s approach ignores one of the key tenets of scientific management. Its creators genuinely believed that you had to pay higher wages to anyone asked to push themselves to their physical limits. Amazon, though, has kept wages in its fulfillment centers at rock bottom, despite a work regimen that by many accounts has become more demanding, not less, over time.

Frederick Winslow Taylor would not approve.

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg View.